Up to Philosophers in Disgrace and Demand




Around 520 AD in Rome, the Roman Empire had fallen in the hands of Germanic brutes, but many of its governmental bodies still functioned, simply because the savage intruders did not understand them and relied on Romans to run them.

One of them was Boethius. But he had intellectual ambitions as well: he wrote four short treatises in letter form on the ecclesiastical doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. These are basically an attempt to solve disputes that had resulted from the Arian variant of christianity -the first form of christianity widely adopted by the Germanic tribes that had entered Western Europe in the process leading to the fall of the Roman Empire. This Arian christian doctrine did not assert, much in harmony with the traditionally empirically oriented Germanic world view, the divinity of Christ (like Muslems do not assert the divinity of Christ and Muhammed, more: Arianism and the "Son of God" thing. Willibrord and Bonifatius did not find pagan German tribes but christians). Using the terminology of the Aristotelian categories he had studied carefully, Boethius described the unity of God in terms of substance and the three divine persons in terms of relation. He also tried to solve dilemmas arising from the traditional description of Christ as both human and divine, by deploying precise definitions of  "substance", "nature," and "person".

It is not fully agreed upon what was the purpose Boethius' stance in this christian issue of the divinity of Christ: in his logical works and in the later Consolation, christian thinking nowhere plays a role. The 19th-century discovery of the biography written by Cassiodorus, however, confirmed Boethius as a christian writer, even if his philosophic sources were non-christian.

At the very same time, around 520, Boethius became magister officiorum (head of all the government and court services) under the Gothic King of Rome Theodoric the Great. The king was an Arian. Boethius' two sons were consuls together in 522. Eventually Boethius fell out of favour with Theodoric. The Consolation ("De consolatione philosophiae"), considered to be his main work, written in his death cell, contains the main extant evidence of his fall but does not clearly describe the actual accusation against him.

Speculations are that after the healing of a schism between Rome and the church of Constantinople in 520, Boethius and other senators may have been suspected of communicating with the Byzantine emperor Justin I, who was orthodox in faith and successful in war. Boethius openly defended the senator Albinus, who was accused of treason "for having written to the Emperor Justin against the rule of Theodoric." The charge of treason brought against Boethius was aggravated by a further accusation of the practice of magic, or of sacrilege, which the accused was at great pains to reject. Sentence was passed and was ratified by the Senate, probably under duress.

We shall probably never know whether practical issues promted Boethius to mould his anti-Arianist philosophy, or whether, the other way around, his philosophical convictions brought his neck under the axe. In the former case, however, as a primarily practical man, he should have known well enough the techniques of

  1. advizing a friend whether it was wise and safe to communicate in writing with the Byzantine emperor Justin I

  2. how to effectively encrypt the message in case the friend insisted to send one

  3. how far to go in defending a friend, caught in the act of writing and sending such a letter.

In the latter case, Boethius acting on philosophical inspiration, we need no further explanations and must deem him lucky that his work escaped destruction and became a primary source of knowledge of classical Greek philosophy in the dark Middle Ages, so pervasively littered with small and "Great" Theodorics making their ways through their pigheaded stupid christian lifes by chopping heads left and right..